Inertia More Likely than Change

The victory of the hardliners in Iran and the lack of willingness by the Israeli government to make serious concessions to the Palestinians are setbacks for Obama's vision of peace and security in the region. An essay by Michael Lüders

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama in Jerusalem (photo: dpa)
Difficult mission: there's a huge gap between Obama and Netanyahu on the two-state solution or a new order for the conflict-ridden Middle East

​​There is seldom any movement in the politics of the Middle East, and when there is, it is seldom in the right direction. Whether it be Egypt, Libya or Saudi-Arabia, most of the states in the region are rigid with gerontocracy, clannishness and repression.

But more has been happening in recent days and weeks than usually happens in years. The speech by the US president, Barack Obama, in Cairo two weeks ago was directed at the hearts and minds of the region's young people and reformers.

Most Muslims believe that Obama is making a sincere effort to place the relationship between the US and the Muslim world on a new footing; a relationship based on mutual respect and without adopting an ideologically patronising tone. And they believe that he is making real efforts towards a comprehensive peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Renewal through reform

And Barack Obama called for change, for the renewal of the region through reform. The most powerful man in the world was, in effect, giving a good telling-off to the local rulers, who fear nothing more than reform, especially in the generally catastrophic education system, in family planning and the fight against poverty.

Pro-Sunni supporters in Beirut (photo: AP)
Encouraging signals for the Obama administration, such as the victory of Saad al-Hariri, the candidate of the pro-Western alliance March 14, in the Lebanese elections, are thin on the ground

​​But the president's vision has come up against reality. It's true that Saad al-Hariri, the candidate of the pro-Western alliance "March 14", won the Lebanese presidential election, while, against expectations, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah lost. But that's the only current news from the region which could be causing any pleasure in Washington.

The much-trumpeted new start in Iran hasn't come about, at least for now, and the incumbent president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, remains in office. In spite of the obvious fraud and the uproar in the country, the hardliners have got their way and they will defend their power with all means.

Demonising the Islamic Republic

Although an Iranian president, unlike his US or French counterparts, has few executive powers and is little more than the spokesman and public face of the religious establishment, Ahmadinejad is, for the West, the face of the Islamic Republic. And in the view of the West, he's the epitome of evil.

He's the almost perfect opponent for those Western politicians and opinion makers who want to portray whatever is in their own political interests as a message of freedom. Ahmadinejad's love of demagogy, and especially his denial of the Holocaust, is grist to the mill of those in the US and especially in Israel who, for ideological reasons, want to demonise Iran.

Furthermore, many analysts believe that Ahmadinehad's re-election could be the start of the countdown for an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran is almost an obsession in Israel – on the one hand, out of real fear of a possible Iranian nuclear attack, but on the other, as a deliberate distraction from Israeli policies on settlements and occupation.

No real willingness to compromise

Iran's President Ahmadinejad (photo: AP)
Ahmadinejad's tendency to demagogy, especially his denial of the Holocaust, is grist to the mill of those in the USA and, above all, in Israel, who want to demonise Iran for ideological reasons

​​Against this background, it's scarcely surprising that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, started his long awaited speech on the issue of Palestine last Sunday by referring to the threat posed by Iran. He went on to say that he could well imagine the founding of a Palestinian state.

But the conditions he outlined were so unrealistic that many might have thought that he was just paying lip service to the idea. In reality, it is scarcely imaginable that the current ultra-rightwing Israeli government could be prepared to make serious concessions towards the Palestinians. Any movement in that direction would immediately lead to the break-up of a coalition which is dominated by the settler lobby.

Obama may make demands of Israel but his demands are not backed up by the threat of sanctions. That would mean open confrontation with the influential Israel lobby. Obama will not take that risk.

Playing for time

The Middle East conflict is important but it is not the central issue of Obama's presidency. So the Israeli government can play for time and ensure, with the help of the media, that the Iranian nuclear issue moves once more towards the top of the agenda.

Obama's dilemma is that he has recognised the problems of the region, and is prepared to change policy after the Bush administration's disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq. But neither in Iran nor in Israel can he find a partner for his attempts to break through the cycle of violence and counter-violence.

Ehud Barak (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (photo: dpa)
Israel has always sent contradictory signals over the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; Defence Minister Ehud Barak recently said that Israel was not ruling out any options

​​Obama's vision runs the risk of turning out to be an illusion. And the last people who would be unhappy about that are the Arab rulers.

The European Union responds to Obama's change of course as it does to everything in American policy: it approves. (The rejection of the Iraq war in 2003 by some European states, including Germany, was an exception.)

Europe remains the US's junior partner, in the Middle East as elsewhere. Independent European initiatives are not to be expected, either with regard to Iran or with regard to Israel. No leading German politician would come up with the idea of openly and publicly criticising Israeli positions.

It doesn't cost much to make demands of Iran. And comments on Israel restrict themselves to good-natured rhetoric which usually ignores Palestinian reality. But in the long term that will not be enough.

There's a great danger that those in power in Israel will risk an attack on the Iranian nuclear programme – probably believing correctly that most, if not all, Western governments will see such a development as legitimate self-defence.

But, if such an attack took place, it would need more than mere rhetoric to deal with the consequences.

Michael Lüders

© 2009

Dr Michael Lüders was for many years the Middle East correspondent of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. He is currently working as a political and economic consultant and writer in Berlin.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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